The venerable red-brick structures at Guilford Avenue and Oliver Street possess a curious history. Now called the CopyCat Building, it has been adopted by Baltimore’s artists and musicians who like its expansive windows and loft-studio spaces.
What we call the CopyCat complex began as industrial structures that opened in 1897 when Crown Cork and Seal began its operations here. The Sun described it as “by far the largest plant for patent bottle capping stoppers in the world.” No bottles were capped here. Beverage makers bought this patented equipment for their glass containers filled with lemon phosphate or Pilsner.
The business, based upon a patent of an inventor named William Painter who lived nearby at Calvert and Biddle streets, boomed, so much that in 1909 the owners had Guilford Avenue excavated and tunneled. Railroad freight cars — passing nearby at today’s Pennsylvania Station — would load and unload tin for use in the main Crown Cork building, which stands about 50 feet above the rail tracks. The current existence of this concrete-sided 10-foot-wide tunnel, described in detail in The Sun, remains something of a mystery. This cavity took 15 months to build.
Crown Cork and Seal’s business grew bigger. It soon ran out of space in the dense Greenmount West neighborhood and expanded with a land purchase on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown in 1905, a site served by two railroad systems,
Crown Cork’s directors closed the Guilford Avenue operation in 1930. Beginning it 1923, they leased floors to Crown Luggage and a maker of comforters and pillows. In the Depression of the 1930s, other spaces were rented to an early public assistance agency, the Baltimore Emergency Relief Corp., printers Barton-Cotton and the Branigan women’s dressmaking operation. Printers and sewing machine operators would fill the Guilford Avenue structure, and the Lebow men’s clothing manufacturer occupied the Barclay Street flank of the industrial campus.
The CopyCat name took hold when this division of the old Park-Lane Press put up a large rooftop sign. That same sign now proclaims the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, a designation this formerly industrial neighborhood shares with the Greenmount West community.
CopyCat’s owner is Charles Lankford, who spent 12 years converting the building from industrial to office/residential. He worked with city officials to make it legal for artists to live here in their studios.
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He bought CopyCat in 1983 for $225,000, when no one dreamed what future it would have as an arts destination.
“I made the money to support this investment with a computer business I founded and took public decades ago,” he said. “There is no way the rents could have financed this. I view this as my legacy to Baltimore.”
Lankford worked to make sure the old bottle-capping machine areas have sprinklers, with video cameras, fire alarms and a fire reporting system.
“I view our obligations as a service business,” he said. His owner’s office is marble-lined and recalls the prosperous era of sarsaparilla making.
Lankford, who was born not far away in Mercy Medical Center, was a tenant when he and his printing operation, Typesetters Inc. came to the CopyCat about 50 years ago. His firm was then being relocated for redevelopment of the Inner Harbor. Movers and riggers had to remove the windows to get the heavy Linotype machines in place in what were then CopyCat’s lofts. Other parts of the building were still humming with sewing machines.
Printing was changing in the 1970s, and Lankford saw the possibilities of computerized typesetting. He became the owner of Penta Systems International and sold his software to the printing industry.
Computerization rendered the cumbersome, space-eating Linotype machines industrial relics. After he bought the building, he had space to rent. As an experiment, he tried leasing to artists. He now has 90 leases with about 230 people living in the old bottle cap operation.